I. I dreamt I died today, and this was my last poem, which isn’t a big deal;
I have died twice before, run-through at seventeen, undone at twenty-eight,
Respawning’s not instant; often years overlap some pieces remain lost,
the burn unrelenting as pain from phantom limb connect me to this realm.
Vast, and marvelous, we are no more than my dream; reality is me.
We cling to each other, turbulent distractions, our skin, burdened touchstones;
massaged lies, we embrace pleasure clawed from our truth; we’re so very alone.
Love me without knowing, you’ll never see the seams that bind the shame that is.
I would taste better as ashes upon your tongue. Love me until the void.
II. Nothing warned me; nothing prepared me. There was no vocabulary for the remnants, for when the sun turned away, withholding all of nature.
Nothing foretold the catastrophe, nor was it immediately known, but felt in phases; a series of cascading calamities leaving the world dimmer in stages as sources of nourishment withered and fell like so many dominoes,
and soon, I found myself face-down on momma’s couch, immobile, unresponsive to external pleas to eat or demands to get my shit together.
Soon, external voices no longer registered as loud as the absence of the one who no longer cared if I ate or starved, and so I fell, falling behind the dimming event horizon, leaving only with what I entered; ending as I began, staring into the space between atoms as fields dissolved and barriers melted to nothing.
III. Perhaps in another life, in a reality we’ll never know I persevered against your will shattered your absurd barriers and married you.
I made you happy, filled your cup, and exposed your doubts and the specters of my many fears as foolhardy fairy tales.
We had a girl and fought furiously to name her; I wanted Olivia, you demanded something African that I couldn’t pronounce.
We compromised, choosing Nefertari with Olivia as her middle name and I was a good dad.
We loved each other and lifted each other up, instead of yielding to fear, spite, and desperation,
but I guess if that all came to pass, I wouldn’t really be me, you’d be someone else, and our daughter, a specter; just another fantasy of a foolish old man.
Stare into the void long enough and the phantoms name themselves.
IV. We all feel that lonely, empty, meaningless pull towards twilight of eternal nightshade where the unknowable hell-verse beckons as a perverse lullaby to our seemingly incessant suffering and so we are compelled to seek its finite serenade towards infinity.
We hope to name it in order to cast it back into its bottle;
we will ourselves to defy it by defining it for ourselves, for
to chronicle it is to vanquish its unshakable power over us.
We scrawl the void in ink and blood and then someone labeled it poetry.
V. In some eastern religions, philosophies, and fiction, heaven and hell are recast as reincarnation and
the void; an endless chasm.
It is said that if our souls carry too much vile darkness at the instant of our death, instead of our soul’s rebirth,
the last remnants of our light are cast into the abyss, never to feel warmth again, left alone in an endless
chasm of despair alone with the dreadful comfort of all terrible emotions imaginable to us.
At first blush, that doesn’t sound all that bad to me; in fact, it sounds like a fine place where the best poetry is forged,
but never allowed to see the light of a brand-new day.
But on second thought, perhaps eternal life in darkness as death’s greatest unshared poems really is a hellish fate
What can I say, Wolf? I’ve never owned any pets. Too much overhead, too much work,
oh, and also because of slavery.
Yes Wolf; I mentioned pet ownership and slavery in the same breath, but it’s not like you’re gonna call me on it; you’re just a dumb dog,
one that’s been dead for nearly thirty years.
But fine, I remember those soulful eyes, so I’ll try to explain it.
There’s something to be said of those unlucky in birth who persevere against all odds to overthrow their oppressors in triumph.
Americans especially love these underdog stories, as our recorded history is full of them.
But what of the other stories?
With Tubman, Douglass, and The Amistad as outliers of four-hundred years of mostly humdrum, garden-variety slavery, with all the standard rape, abuse, and outright murdering of slaves too stupid to mask their intelligence,
how many stories of the voiceless do we know?
It’s weird, Wolf. You were a dog – a beautiful German Shepherd/Doberman Pinscher mix
– but when I think of all the voiceless slaves who were born and died in unconscionable suffering, I think of you.
To be honest, Wolf, I haven’t thought of you in ages, and that’s a shame, but
the less remembered of your tragic life and death, the better for me.
Or perhaps not; after all, I’ve left your memory as it were, untamed, but there it sits upon my return, waiting patiently only for me.
What if my sidestepping your legacy is but one more injustice for you?
Our lives were intertwined for so long, with much of the trauma descendent directly from my ancestors in bondage.
You weren’t even my damn dog, but I was your reluctant caretaker, and there’s nothing poetic about feeding you and cleaning up your shit, but I felt your loyalty and your agony in-kind.
Wolf, you were an idiot of a dog, raised on ignorance and cruelty, and yet you were still sweet and loyal.
I’d given up on hiding grandma’s tools of discipline, as she’d just find herself a sturdier switch to snap on ya,
but I taught you to sit using head-rubs instead of grandma’s rubber hose; you were always a good boy.
I wish I had told you that more.
I remember you having the audacity to demand more head-rubs from me, swatting at my hand with your paw like Bunky the cat taught you, and I happily gave them to you.
I wish I’d given you all the head-rubs.
But I’d graduated the basement and fled to the Navy, making the cut despite the odds.
I heard of your fate secondhand, and I wept real tears over a freaking dog that I didn’t even own
who lived his entire existence chained to a waterpipe in a half-finished basement,
life snuffed-out, most likely, by someone well-known and trusted.
Can you imagine that?
Anyway, yeah, I’ve never cared for any pets.
Too much overhead, too much work, just too much. ***
And now for our daily prompt (optional, as always). Today, I challenge you to write a paean to the stalwart hero of your household: your pet. Sing high your praises and tell the tale of Kitty McFluffleface’s ascension of Mt. Couch. Let us hear how your intrepid doggo bravely answers the call to adventure whenever the leash jingles.
If you don’t have a pet, perhaps you know one or remember one who deserves to be immortalized in verse. For inspiration, I direct you to a selection from an 18th-century poem by Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno, in which the poet’s praise for his cat ranges from “For he is docile and can learn certain things” all the way up to “For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.” Personally, I’m lucky if my cat doesn’t just sleep the day away, but I find her pretty delightful all the same.
This was painful to write, and I nearly scrapped the whole thing. I kept trying to walk away from it, but it kept calling me back.
It’s unpolished, and I won’t be revisiting it at all, but Wolf deserves to have his story told.
Today’s (optional) prompt is brought to us by the Emily Dickinson Museum. First, read this brief reminiscence of Emily Dickinson, written by her niece. And now, here is the prompt that the museum suggests:
Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s description of her aunt’s cozy room, scented with hyacinths and a crackling stove, warmly recalls the setting decades later. Describe a bedroom from your past in a series of descriptive paragraphs or a poem. It could be your childhood room, your grandmother’s room, a college dormitory or another significant space from your life.
I went back to my earliest memory, when I was 3-4yrs old, and possessed neither a room of my own, nor the very concept of a room of my own. I did have tons of questions though, just as I do now.
There is a madness, a quickening, a voice saying things one feels to be true, but doesn’t want to hear, and so we stop and shutter the door to beginning, living in a state of non-living, but waiting for death as if it were the next bus out of the slum of existence, and so maybe the voice should be revisited and heard to see where it leads, and so we settle into the sound even though we know it as a figment of an active ego we’re vying to wrestle control from, even if for just a moment and the only sound observed should resonate from the pulse, the heartbeat, the controlled breathing of one who is close to oneness, for the voice is just an awakening of noisy mind being disciplined into silence as our eyelids lower and the body sinks into the chair and then the ground and then the softness of cosmic fabric, and for the briefest of moments it is felt, the connection we so secretly crave has been there all along, for you and I are now linked to everything and everyone that has ever lived and who will come after we are dust, and thusly, the voice is silenced for a moment as water becomes what is it shaped to become, just as you and I have become water and the spring season beckons a sliver of all seasons, the pollen that tickles the nose coming from a breeze that was the dying breath of artic jet-streams thousands of miles ago, roused by a global spin and the sun’s disparate heating of the sky; it is all connected as we are unified by the breath of life, so when I yield to you, I’m yielding to us, and once bowed and humbled, you will see the good earth and know that it is both ours and no one’s. ***
Because it’s a Saturday, I have an (optional) prompt for you that takes a little time to work through — although you can certainly take short-cuts through it, if you like! The prompt, which you can find in its entirety here, was developed by the poet and teacher Hoa Nguyen, asks you to use a long poem by James Schuyler as a guidepost for your poem. (You may remember James Schuyler from our poetry resource for Day 2.) This is a prompt that allows you to sink deeply into another poet’s work, as well as your own.
I included a bit of a shortcut to this prompt. While I found the poetry of James Schuyler to be amazing and engaging, listening to the speaker read it was a bit grating and took me out of it. Instead, I read it myself while playing a live Tibetan meditation music channel from YouTube. Midway through reading, I broke-off and began crafting my own poem based on how I felt in the moment, paying no heed to the other steps.
I think I did pretty ok. I certainly felt better allowing for a stream of consciousness and getting out of its way a bit before returning to shape it a bit. It was an intriguing experience and helped to center me a bit.
One afternoon in your next reincarnation, as the crow recognizes your intent and the rainclouds run dry of metaphor; daylight, weakened, outliving its worth you will know the pain of sending me away and I will disappear like the last good day returning only when you swallow the sun chasing the bitter-soaked roots of regret today you will squawk and I will remain returning to roost by your side despite you you can deny the blue sky if you want though you can’t see it, you know it exists but one afternoon in your next lonesome life, the starling will sing; you’ll hear the whispers you’ll feel the last good day, as it lingers but never today, for it lingers for you. ***
Our (optional) prompt for the day asks you to engage with different languages and cultures through the lens of proverbs and idiomatic phrases. Many different cultures have proverbs or phrases that have largely the same meaning, but are expressed in different ways. For example, in English we say “his bark is worse than his bite,” but the same idea in Spanish would be stated as “the lion isn’t as fierce as his painting.” Today, I’d like to challenge you to find an idiomatic phrase from a different language or culture, and use it as the jumping-off point for your poem. Here’s are a few lists to help get you started: One, two, three.
The idiom: ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ Literal translation: “One afternoon in your next reincarnation.” What it means: “It’s never gonna happen.” Other languages this idiom exists in: A phrase that means a similar thing in English: “When pigs fly.” In French, the same idea is conveyed by the phrase, “when hens have teeth (quand les poules auront des dents).” In Russian, it’s the intriguing phrase, “When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain (Когда рак на горе свистнет).” And in Dutch, it’s “When the cows are dancing on the ice (Als de koeien op het ijs dansen).”
She crafted me a lopsided chocolate cake from a box with a picture-perfect cake and a smiling lady on it, having just enough frosting to scrawl HAPPY B-DAY SON on it;
settled next to cousin’s store-bought, soulless gourmet masterpiece, my “homemade” confection stood out like a lumpy shrug, and I was embarrassed for it,
not for the obvious optics and subtle jabs from relatives, but I was undone at the seams because deep down, I could feel momma’s humiliation at her best effort.
Knowing where her heart was, and needing her to know mine, months later, during a spring bloom, I plucked the finest, loveliest weeds I could find, careful to select only the prettiest undesirables for the grandest dandelion bouquet known to mankind.
I could tell by the smile on her face that I’d made my point.
She even went and made another lumpy cake with the lady smiling on the box. ***
Today, in gratitude for making it to Day 20, our (optional) prompt asks you to write a poem about a handmade or homemade gift that you have received. It could be a friendship bracelet made for you by a grade-school classmate, an itchy sweater from your Aunt Louisa, a plateful of cinnamon toast from your grandmother, a mix-tape from an old girlfriend. And whatever gift you choose, we wish you happy writing!
Yeah, I wasn’t really into this prompt, but I did it anyway because I couldn’t think of an alternative. What more can I say? Have some lumpy cake.
We made it halfway up before yielding to father time and self-imposed inertia.
Bending onto a level manicured path, a young tree bloomed in watercolor reds; a beautiful alien among puffy white sapling blossoms.
Along a strip of conformity where anything out-of-place is hammered, snipped, or sprayed into one of the approved labels, the tree of rubies grabs the eye for all the reasons, right, wrong, or otherwise.
Towering firs in the distance command focus, even as humanity carved condos, two-car garages, and rickety steps into where their cousins were felled years ago.
They stretch and slowly sway stoically against the light breeze, reminding all to stand as tall as their posture allows and inhale deeply, accepting their regifted oxygen, exhaling in mutual respiration.
The opposite side of the valley, across the Sammamish river, teams with every shade of green, blending seamlessly into each other, accepting the uncolored order before bowing to man’s rectangular boxy factories and warehouses, each aligned to and more unremarkable than the last beige, bland nothing.
Between the bland boxes and us lies another greenbelt with an overgrown abandoned rail line cutting through it; a boundary noted and ignored by most.
Near the bottom of the rickety stair landing, two teens social-distance together with their tiny dog, who silently, but rightfully eyes me suspiciously.
I doubt he’s ever seen the likes of me in his territory before.
But he shrugs it off, finding a far more intriguing scent, oblivious to the nearby blackberries at war with a similarly invasive species.
The shrub battle is waged on its own time and would’ve gone unnoticed by my eyes had my beloved not been beside me to pull me out of our moment, drawing attention to it.
She often helps me see things with new colors and angles, bending our halfway-uphill trips into an unyielding odyssey. ***
Today, our optional prompt challenges you to write a poem based on a “walking archive.” What’s that? Well, it’s when you go on a walk and gather up interesting things – a flower, a strange piece of bark, a rock. This then becomes your “walking archive” – the physical instantiation of your walk. If you’re unable to get out of the house (as many of us now are), you can create a “walking archive” by wandering around your own home and gathering knick-knacks, family photos, maybe a strange spice or kitchen gadget you never use. One you’ve finished your gathering, lay all your materials out on a tray table, like museum specimens. Now, let your group of materials inspire your poem! You can write about just one of the things you’ve gathered, or how all of them are all linked, or even what they say about you, who chose them and brought them together.
Of course, upon hearing that in order to stay on prompt, I’d have to leave the house, my wife was thrilled. Me, not so much, but hey, I did it.
The world burns with the worst humanity has to offer along with a contagion coldly vying to finish the job.
The country where I was born continues its fine tradition of ignoring its festering generational wounds, allowing a con man to bankrupt its already decaying conscience.
The new neighborhood is full of facile smiles too perfectly affixed upon the only books I’d rather not open.
The sky is heavy, densely burdened by the shade of sorrow that spittles rain in mists too fine to be noticeable until it beads upon fresh spring leaves and slickens the path enough to reflect dreary clouds back into us.
The tears fall from her face, mingling internal precipitation with external condensation; a reflection of both my subconscious betrayal, and the nature of nature.
The sugary-tart sunshine emanates from my glass of vodka-spiked orange juice, rendered pale by soaked, anemic daylight spilling into my window.
The long swig I take, soaking in nutrient and toxin, reminds me that I still draw breath, and therefore there’s always a chance to set things right. ***
Our optional prompt for the day also honors the idea of Saturday (the Saturdays of the soul, perhaps?), by challenging you to write an ode to life’s small pleasures. Perhaps it’s the first sip of your morning coffee. Or finding some money in the pockets of an old jacket. Discovering a bird’s nest in a lilac bush or just looking up at the sky and watching the clouds go by.
Rather than encouraging minimalism, today we challenge you to write a poem of over-the-top compliments. Pick a person, place, or thing you love, and praise it in the most effusive way you can. Go for broke with metaphors, similes, and more. Need a little inspiration? Perhaps you’ll find it in the lyrics of Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top.” (Scroll down at the link for the lyrics and an annotated explanation of them).
This is another one I feel like I do way too much, so I went the other way with it, tapping into my emotional flatline (which sadly, can feel all too real at times).